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Pneumonia in children

Young girl in bed with high temperature
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Pneumonia is commonly caused by bacteria and viruses. It’s a condition caused by swelling and inflammation of the cells in the lungs.

Pneumonia can happen at any age, but it’s more common in young children or older adults. Children and babies might need treatment in the hospital if they get pneumonia, although some cases can be treated at home. If your child is unwell, it might seem scary to think they could have pneumonia. It is worth remembering that most children recover well from pneumonia and that long-term problems are rare.

In the UK, children are given vaccinations that offer protection against one of the most common causes of pneumonia. If you think that your child is unwell, make sure to see your GP or go to A&E.

What causes pneumonia in children?

Several different bacteria and viruses can cause pneumonia. Viruses that most commonly cause pneumonia include:

  • Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)
  • Parainfluenza
  • Influenza

Bacterial causes of pneumonia can be:

  • Streptococcus pneumoniae, which is thought to be one of the most common pneumococcal bacteria species
  • Group A streptococcal species, which are rarer but likely to be more serious

In the UK, rates of pneumonia have been reduced since the pneumococcal vaccine was introduced. This is commonly offered to babies in 2 doses, at 12 weeks and 1 year of age.

Are some children more likely to get pneumonia?

Children with some chronic conditions, such as cystic fibrosis and sickle cell disease, may be at greater risk of pneumonia. Children with immune systems problems can get pneumonia from less common organisms, such as fungal pneumonia.

Symptoms and signs of pneumonia in children

The signs and symptoms of pneumonia can vary depending on the child’s age. Very young children won’t be able to describe what they are feeling.

Symptoms of pneumonia in children can include:

  • A high temperature
  • Fast breathing
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty catching their breath
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Pain in the chest
  • Discomfort or pain in the tummy
  • Nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea
  • A headache
  • Blue or grey lips and nails (in severe cases)

The signs and symptoms don’t usually allow doctors to tell the difference between pneumonia caused by bacteria or caused by viruses. Despite this, take your child to see your GP or go to A&E so they can get any treatment they might need.

How do doctors diagnose pneumonia in children?

If you think your child might have pneumonia, reach out to your GP for support straight away, or go to A&E if you think your child might be very unwell.

Doctors ask many questions about your child’s symptoms, health, medical conditions and vaccine history. Then, they will examine your child, looking for signs of breathing difficulty and listening to their lungs with a stethoscope.

If your child isn’t so unwell that they need to go to the hospital, they may not need any specific tests to diagnose pneumonia. Your doctor will diagnose pneumonia based on your answers to their questions and what they find when examining your child.

If they need to go to the hospital, your child may have a few tests, including blood tests to measure oxygen levels, swabs of their nose or chest X-rays.

What complications can pneumonia cause children?

Sometimes, pneumonia can lead to other medical problems. Young children are thought to be more at risk of getting complications than adults.

Pneumonia can lead to:

  • Fluid collecting outside the lung (a pleural effusion)
  • Infected fluid around the lung (an empyema)
  • A reaction of the body to infection (sepsis)

However, most cases of pneumonia do not lead to any long-term problems.

How is pneumonia treated in children?

Pneumonia is treated differently if your child is well enough to stay at home compared to being admitted to the hospital. In both cases, your child may get given antibiotics to help treat the infection. These can be given as a tablet, liquid medicine, or a drip into the blood.

Pneumonia treatment at home

To help your child feel better at home, you can:

  • Control a high temperature with medicines like paracetamol (if advised by your doctor)
  • Avoid dehydration by giving them plenty to drink
  • Ensure they take medications, including antibiotics, at the correct time every day
  • Encourage them to cough up and spit out any mucus
  • If they are very young, lay them across your lap and pat their back gently during coughing to help bring up mucus
  • Apply gentle heat, like a hot water bottle, to help ease chest pain

If your doctor tells you your child is well enough to recover from pneumonia at home, they’ll ensure you know the signs of recovery. If you don’t see signs of recovery at home, contact your doctor for the next steps.

Pneumonia treatment in the hospital

If your child needs to go to the hospital to treat their pneumonia, they may have other treatments that can include:

  • Oxygen through tubes in the nostrils, a mask on the face or other devices that go over their head
  • Fluids, possibly through a drip into the blood

Most children recover well from pneumonia and do not usually have any long-term problems afterwards.

How to avoid pneumonia in children

If you’re worried about your child getting pneumonia, there are a few things you can do to avoid it. One of the best things you can do is to ensure that your child gets all their routine vaccinations, including the pneumococcal vaccine and flu vaccine, if eligible.

Pneumonia is not a very infectious disease, but it can spread by:

  • Coughs and sneezes from someone with the condition
  • Contact with an infected person, their bedding or tissues

Exposure to cigarette smoke is thought to increase the risk of breathing conditions in children, but there is no specific evidence that it increases the chance of getting pneumonia. Making sure your child gets all their vaccinations, including the flu jab, can help reduce the likelihood of illness like pneumonia.

A final note on pneumonia in children

You might be worried if you think your child has pneumonia. Not all children who get pneumonia go to the hospital, and most recover well with no long-term issues.

There are a few things that you can do to reduce the chance of your child catching pneumonia, especially making sure that they are up to date with their vaccinations. If you’ve consulted your doctor and you’re helping your child recover at home, there are several ways you can help them feel more comfortable.

If you’re worried that your child might have pneumonia, talk to your doctor, who can diagnose them and tell you what treatment they need.

Explore more of our guides for help and advice, including what to do if you have pneumonia during pregnancy.